With the growth of the Alt-Right, Michael Richardson discusses the political influence of memes.
THAT moment when… memes forego scrutiny.
Memes have developed in recent years to become an influential and mainstream medium. However, they have for the most part been responded to in a way that is passive and uncritical. Their power and influence is not widely acknowledged. Many define memes by their silliness and disregard the entire medium. However, this is not the whole truth. The reality is that we are living in a world where memes are a useful tool in the game of politics.
A meme is a virally-transmitted cultural symbol or idea. They usually take the form of captioned images that are intended to be funny. In 2016, many of the most popular memes were focused on the US presidential elections and the rise of Donald Trump.
The funny imagery of memes becomes potent when they carry a message. While there are no statistics for the number of people whose political views are informed by viral images that, for example, depict refugees as terrorists, the numbers of likes and shares suggest that the effect is significant.
“The viral nature of memes has been exploited by various internet fringes and they have been transformed into political tools.”
Over the last year, the viral nature of memes has been exploited by various internet fringes and they have been transformed into political tools. “Meme magic” is a term that originated on 4Chan, referring to memes that rise from the internet to have real-life consequences. To quote the message of one user on the website, “We actually elected a meme as president.”
Although it seems a ridiculous notion to suggest that Trump was carried to victory on the shoulders of millions of slick meme-imbibers, it is certainly true that they played a part. The left’s mockery of Trump through memes gave him a great deal of attention at the start of his campaign, and when the right responded with their own memes, what will go down in history as “The Great Meme War” began. By regarding Pepe the Frog as a hate symbol, the Anti-Defamation League acknowledged the power of memes. The events of 2016 transformed memes into a valid political weapon.
The fighters in the Great Meme War engineered Pro-Trump and anti-Clinton memes to gain as much mainstream traction as possible. They used platforms like Reddit and networks of fake accounts on Twitter to push the memes in front of as many viewers as possible. Users of 4Chan believe their efforts ‘memed’ Trump’s presidency from a far-fetched fantasy to reality.
Although the lifecycle of many memes begins and ends within the forums that create them, that does not render their effects void. This is often the case with 4Chan, which has always had an outsider bent. During the early 2000s, vehemently anti-George W. Bush, it became a hub for 9/11 truthers and for trolling religious conservatives. The leftist hacking collective Anonymous group was born from these Bush-era boards.
The boards also developed a culture of hard-core racist language; bigotry at first motivated by a desire to get a rise out of “normies”, but eventually fostering an environment where genuine racists felt at home. Former users have spoken out about how they were radicalised by the forums, how engaging with hatred and misogyny quickly made them more racist and misogynistic: like Pepe the Frogs boiling alive in slowly heating water. This may explain its support for a destructive outsider like Trump. This radicalisation of the vulnerable has effects in the political world.
“By regarding Pepe the Frog as a hate symbol, the Anti-Defamation League acknowledged the power of memes.”
Perhaps 4Chan users overstate their influence on the election, and Trump’s victory is in a correlative, rather than a causal relation to their efforts. However, one should keep in mind that a guiding force in Trump’s campaign was Steve Bannon, who brought a great deal of knowledge about the power of internet subculture from Breitbart News.
Former officials with the Trump campaign even reported that a team dedicated to monitoring social media trends were in contact with prominent users of r/The_Donald subreddit, a conduit from 4Chan to the mainstream internet. Trump encouraged the culture, at one point even sharing on Twitter an image of a Trump-like Pepe the Frog positioned behind a presidential lectern.
The media’s handling of memes has also been premature. By taking ironic memes too seriously, and declaring Pepe a “white supremacist” symbol, alt-right meme-creators were granted legitimacy. They were also given something to laugh about, inciting a storm of #NotAllPepes in response. The premature response gave memes an undeserved status, and the trolls won.
Memes have become an influential political presence that has real-world consequences, but the deep-seated irony and destructive, outsider impulse makes them a difficult force to grapple with. Treat them too seriously and the internet responds with laughter. The media must discover an effective way to fight the influence of memes, so that the trolls do not win.